From about 1919-1928, the female waistline was largely invisible. During this period, most women's dress lacked indentation at the natural waistline, creating a columnar silhouette best represented by the chemise or 'flapper' dress. Though some women adopted this style, which has become an icon of the decade, others wore slightly varied versions of the silhouette. Throughout the decade, a variety of devices were used to soften this severe silhouette, including pleated inserts, draped waist sashes and bloused bodices. When used in small doses, these elements added visual interest to an otherwise starkly simple silhouette. Decoration, like the appliqued flower and vine design on this dress, provided another layer of complexity.
When a garment featured a waistline, it was usually placed nearer the hips than the natural waist. As seen in this day dress, it was often designated by a sash or belt. In some cases, the sash was used to create a blouson bodice, as seen here. A Paris fashion report from 1923 noted "the marked use of the bloused bodice and set-in narrow belt...resting low on the hips."1 This lowered waistline was nearly universal during the 1920s. This same report described the importance of "pleated sections or panels" in the skirts of fashionable Paris dresses. An article from 1922 lyrically described the appeal of floating panels: "when the wearer of this gown walks along the street, you will see the wind catch the long strip of material and fling it out into the breeze in a most fetching manner."2 This silk day dress features a floating panel extending from the right hip and a section of pleated fabric falling from the left shoulder to the hem.
In addition to the visible decorative touches, this day dress features a more subtle touch of embellishment. At the right hip, two large celluloid buttons fasten together, serving as the 'buckle' on the draped hip sash. Large and decorative, these buttons function as jewelery, though placed in an unusual location.
Cellulose nitrate (sold under the trade name celluloid) was used as an ivory and tortoiseshell substitute beginning in the 1870s. The substance, made partially from camphor, was popular for many other uses, including accessories, household items and motion picture and x-ray film. Celluloid was used for manufacturing buttons through the 1930s, when other plastics became more popular. Like other synthetic materials, celluloid has a tendency to deteriorate due to its unstable chemical composition. This results in shattering, peeling, and in the case of cellulose nitrate film, occasional spontaneous combustion. You can learn more about how to safely store cellulose nitrate here.
1 "Victorianism Comes Back In Paris" New York Times 12 Feb. 1923.
2 "Fashions: Street Clothes in Silk and Linen" New York Times 2 July 1922: 67.